Katherine Rich: First health stars likely to appear this year

19 September 2014

Supermarkets are likely to see the first products sporting the distinctive stars of the voluntary front-of-pack Health Star Rating system before Christmas, after the New Zealand Government decided in June that it would pick up the Australian system.

hs1It was a good move. Both the industry and shoppers were keen to see a common system that helps show shoppers what’s in food. In fact, a poll of consumers showed that about 80% of those surveyed supported the scheme.

FGC, as the peak body for the food and grocery sector, is encouraging our members to consider applying it to their products.

We initially had some reservations when calculations in the first trials to rate foods produced some strange results. But further work by the working group – which consisted of food safety officials, public health representatives, consumer groups, nutritionists, and FGC representing the food industry – largely sorted out those issues.

The calculations which decide on the number of stars are backed by science and factual food composition. They are based on the nutrients identified in the New Zealand and Australian Dietary Guidelines as those we should not have too much of (energy, saturated fat, salt, sugar), and modify these based on food that the guidelines say we should have more of (fruit, vegetables, low fat milk, milk products, lean protein, wholegrain breads, cereals). 

The Health Star Rating system has two big advantages over other systems. First, it’s easy to understand: just like the energy star rating system on fridges and other electrical appliances, it’s easy to see at a glance what you’re getting. But the biggest thing is that it evaluates the whole food and not just individual nutrients, and the rating is based on nutrients that are positive and negative according to dietary guidelines. Positive ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes get extra points.

And that’s where it differs from the traffic light system that has been talked about a lot by some people.  The problem with the traffic light system is that it evaluates individual nutrients but does not give an overall rating to the food.

Traffic lights can mislead shoppers into believing some foods and drinks are healthier than they actually are. For example, sugary soft drinks would get a colour rating that makes them look healthier than milk and other foods that are important to a healthy and balanced diet. Sugary soft drinks would score three green lights because they have no fat, no saturated fat, and low salt. They would score just one red – for sugar.  Milk would score three oranges and just one green!  That’s mostly why the traffic light idea was dropped by government ministers from New Zealand and Australia.

Another good thing about the Health Star Rating system is that it can be used with other schemes such as the Heart Foundation’s Tick. FGC was particularly keen that any new scheme did not damage or diminish the Heart Tick as this is already well-known, trusted, and used by many Kiwis.

FGC has been part of the investigation into front-of-pack labelling for some years. As well as being members of the New Zealand Front of Pack Labelling Advisory Group which developed the Health Star Rating system, we have volunteered to help with some of the educational workshops for industry being planned by the Ministry of Primary Industries, and we have been distributing information on the system to members as well as providing feedback on the clarity of the style guide.

I’m aware of 15 food companies that are already working to implement the Health Star Rating system, but there are likely to be others which are keeping their plans under wraps until they put them into supermarkets.

Though we expect to see the first wave of implementation this year, most of it will happen next year, as companies plan pack changes six months to two years ahead, depending on their programmes.  

It’s important for shoppers to realise that the Health Star Rating system is not the one thing that will make all their healthy-eating decisions for them – rather it’s another guide that will work alongside systems such as the Heart Tick to make it easier for them to identify more healthy choices.